HAMILTON, Mont. -- A controversial gate that's been a spotlight in the debate over private property rights and public land won't be removed, at least for now.
Ravalli County commissioners had set Sunday, September 23 as a deadline for landowners to remove the 40-year-old Hughes Creek gate in the West Fork in the southern end of Ravalli County.
The board had taken public comment on the gate prior to Friday's hearing, but decided to hold another public hearing at the landowners' request.
The meeting was packed, with commissioners taking testimony from both sides that took more than three hours.
After the Friday meeting the board decided to continue the hearing on the gate's future until January, 15, 2019.
The gate has been the source of lawsuits and argument.
Landowners are fighting to keep the gate.
They filed a second appeal to the Montana Supreme Court in a lawsuit the court had rejected.
The county and the District Court say the gate leads to a county road that touches public land.
But landowners in the area say it isn't public and allowing the use of the road impedes their private property rights.
"Who do you think you are to believe you have the right to assert that you hold that right over me and my own land," said Hughes Creek landowner Michael Mikolaichik. "Did you purchase this land? "he asked. "No."
But Jim Olson from the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association said "it's a public road."
"State law," said Olson, "says you cannot block land that provides access to the general public."
Bob Driggers agreed.
"That's our public land behind the gate," he said, "that we have been excluded from for several years."
But Lola Grenfell, recounted a history of the road dating back to when she was a child.
"I've seen it all,"she said. "And I may be the only living person left that remembers and lived in Hughes Creek."
She said years ago there was a gate that you weren't allowed past.
"I'm almost dead," she said. "And I will take every damn dime I've got to save my property."
The board said to avoid conflict it will let the legal process proceed and come up with a plan in case the landowners' appeal is unsuccessful.
Commissioner Chris Hoffman said "to use the 23rd as a drop dead date all we do is leave potential for serious conflict and placing the Sheriff's Office in a mess that we haven't mitigated."
"Before we ever remove the gate we need to have signs and delineation of a roadway," said Commissioner Greg Chilcott. " It would be premature to go up to that gate Monday morning and pull it out and let conflict begin. That's a bad idea. It's not good public policy."